Stately, Country English Houses

My plot bunny–which has been hopping around since about October, I think–is sort of shaping up to be a historical fiction/alternate history/contemporary dual storyline/time slip/romantic elements kind of mishmash thing.

As my friend Krystal Jane Ruin says, it’s turning into a FrankenIdea.

I don’t have a ton worked out about said Plot Bunneh–I don’t even have characters’ names yet–but I do know that the story revolves around an English country house. Or stately home, if you prefer. I’ll go with country house because I don’t think the house in my Plot Bunny is a huge palace-like mansion which is what “stately home” says to me.

Part of being a period and costume drama nerd are the buildings that those dramas take place in and sometimes, those buildings are beautiful, rambling, grand old homes nestled in the English countryside. It might be because I’m a history nerd or because I’ve read too many novels where characters have estates with country homes on them, but I think there are so many story possibilites in a large, drafty old building that may be a couple hundred years old.

The fancier ones are pretty famous.

This is Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. We know it as Pemberley from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.

Chatsworth House,

This is Highclere Castle aka Downton Abbey:

Highclere Castle,

The reasons why houses like this were built:

-a lord in medieval times decided he didn’t want to keep his fortified castle and wanted a fancier house instead
-the owner of a property decided he wanted the monarch to visit–and to show off how wealthy he was–so he had a fancy house built
–Henry VIII gave out previously Catholic Church-owned land and buildings, so hey, let’s convert the abbey into a fancy house
–a country squire or lord of the manor lived in a far more modest house–their only house–but it was  the biggest in the village. Sometimes his descendants would add rooms onto it or renovate the house so it had more space
–Someone would get rich through the Industrial Revolution and want to show off his wealth–and try to move in more elevated circles–by building or buying a big house
Often, country houses would be passed on in a family, but people sold them as well and new families would move in. 
A capture from a TV version of Emma. Squerrys Court played Hartfield.
But as the cost of maintaining some of these homes became more expensive, country houses began to be converted to schools, hospitals, prisons, apartments, or were torn down. Some of the homes became hotels. Country houses became especially hard for the families who lived in them to keep after World War One, with owners and potential heirs killed and the families having to pay death duties (inheritance taxes) which crippled a lot of families, not to mention the cost of maintaining an old and sometimes huge home when inflation was high and hiring staff was becoming harder and more expensive. Sometimes, tearing the house down and selling the land to developers was a better financial deal. 
But I suppose some of my fascination with country houses involves their history–when were they built? Who lived in them? What kinds of art and other cool objects did the house contain? 
Did the owner of a stately home, running out of funds, marry an American Dollar Princess to save the house, for instanc? 
Did a family have to make a hard choice and sell or tear down their ancestral home in order to pay death duties and establish a more downsized life?
Did the house become a school or has it been converted into apartments? 
And think about the people who’ve lived in those homes. Yeah, maybe a lord and lady, maybe a knight, maybe a village mayor or an untitled but comfortable gentleman and his family. Maybe soldiers recuperated in those homes, if they were converted into hospitals. And of course, we can’t forget about their servants and their staff! Who were they? What were their lives like?
The twentieth century saw many country houses being converted, sold, destroyed all through Britain. There were parliamentary Acts passed pre-WWI to do with preserving ancient monuments and sites, but they excluded inhabited homes. Some very historic homes were given to the government in lieu of death duties and were handed over to the National Trust. 
After World War Two, Britain instituted a system of graded buildings, including country houses. 
-Grade I listed: buildings of exceptional interest
-Grade II listed: builings of more than special interest
-Grade III: buildings of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them
And this graded system supposedly imposed systems and fines on altering or destroying historical building, but it didn’t really stop anything. 
In the 1960s and 1970s, the attitude toward country houses changed–the public began to see them as part of Britain’s heritage–and the buildings were more strictly listed, which means they’re considered important and there are rules in place for preservation and visitors and all of that. 370,000 buildings are listed, including everything built before 1700 and most built before 1840. Anything after that has to be of particular architectural or historical interest to be listed. 
Many of the bigger homes are open to the public—it’s often part of the deal for preservation or for an exemption on death taxes. Plus, it brings in revenue which helps with the upkeep of houses. 
My basic plot bunny–at least the contemporary portion of it–involves a guy appointed by his family to figure out how to get his family’s late Victorian-built country house listed or cleaned up or how to drum up a conference or wedding sort of business so the family doesn’t have to sell the property and the woman archivist who is hired on to sort through the house’s papers and contents–and can time slip, I think?

6 thoughts on “Stately, Country English Houses

  1. Plot Bunneh!! ^_^Speaking of bunnies, I got to visit Beatrix Potter's house during my college days – it's in Scotland, but close enough – and it was cutest thing ever! The entire UK has such beautiful old houses. Emma lived in a lovely house! The TV version is like watching a book come to life. A place like that would be great for a wedding or conference! Geez, people really went through a hardship when someone died! Sounds like you're having a lot of fun with the research. 🙂


  2. Yep, Plot Bunneh!There are so many stories in those kinds of houses and I'm trying to work out how a house which maybe has a hidden history can become a listed property or can be made profitable to someone who owns it 😉


  3. That sounds like one interesting Plot Bunneh! Although the Germans didn't have country houses, they had country castles, hunting castles and the such. I remember one particular one on its own tiny island which had been converted into a convention/wedding place. Another (on the beautiful, flower island of Mainau) now harbors a 1st class restaurant. The histories are always so much fun too! (In other words, I love your plot bunny 🙂 )


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